U. of Wisconsin Seeks to Make Anti-Protest Rule Permanent

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Two years ago, the University of Wisconsin adopted an anti-protest policy under the guise of ‘free speech’ to prevent students from protesting campus speakers. The catalyst was a raucous protest and short disruption of a speech by conservative gadfly Ben Shapiro. The policy would penalize students who disrupt speakers, mandating suspension if a student is found to cause a disruption twice, and expulsion for three times.

The policy is vague. It is unclear if booing (or theoretically, even applause) during a speech would constitute disruption. Because the policy is so vague, and the punishment so severe, the effect is to severely chill free speech.

Nonetheless, the Board of Regents is considering making the policy permanent. On August 13, three weeks before students are due back on campus for the fall semester, the Board held a hearing about the policy. None of the Regents showed up, but a small coterie of students and staff turned out to oppose making the policy permanent. Anthony Flynn, a graduate student, testified:

“In short, the proposal is in search of a problem that does not exist and would create new ones of its own,” began Anthony Flynn, a graduate student and steward with the Teaching Assistants Association. “Instead of protecting free speech on campus, it would have a chilling effect on it. Freedom of speech includes a right to speak out against speech that one finds abhorrent.” 

Flynn added that the policy “will not protect students,” rather it would give additional power to the administration, which would determine what constitutes “material and significant disruption.”

DRAD agrees. We submitted testimony urging the Board of Regents against making the policy permanent.

Defending Rights & Dissent believes that free expression, including the rights of student groups to invite speakers, is of vital importance to higher education settings. This right of free expression, however, does not limit the expression rights of others to criticize what is being said, to vocalize disagreement, or to engage in their own counter protest. The vaguely worded rules and the excessive penalties will not protect free expression in higher education. Instead, it will chill students’ speech rights.

In our testimony, we pointed out that DRAD was founded by people who had been targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and that our first Executive Director, Frank Wilkinson, was banned from speaking on some campuses, so our fight is not with controversial campus speakers, but with attempts to gag students.

Read the full testimony here.